Supporting Agriculture, Tradition and Ecosystems in the Pogány-Havas Microregion of Transylvania (Romania)

Gergely RODICS1 and Barbara KNOWLES2

Pogány-havas Association, Miercurea Ciuc, Str. Szék nr.123, jud. Harghita, Romania
1office@poganyhavas.ro
2barbara.knowles@yahoo.co.uk

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KEYWORDS:

Romania, Transylvania, rural development, traditional agriculture, biodiversity

ABSTRACT

Our diverse region comprises parts of two distinct geographical and cultural areas in the Eastern Carpathians of Romania: Csík (Ciuc) and Gyimes (Ghimeş). The Csík Basin has a wide, open landscape surrounded by mountains, while Gyimes is a mountain area with deep and narrow valleys. Both are exceptionally rich in natural treasures: many rare plants and animals, including the southernmost range of several species left here since the last ice age.

Traditional agriculture has created and maintains a small scale patchwork of hay meadows, pastures, fields and forests: an ideal management system for biodiversity. It provides essential ecosystem and conservation services, and offers resilience to economic and environmental shocks.

This beautiful region has important lessons to offer the modern world. There is much talk of sustainable agriculture and forestry, local food production and biodiversity protection in Europe, yet the villagers of Transylvania have been managing their land and rural economies sustainably for the past thousand years.

We describe an integrated programme to improve rural incomes, support traditional agriculture, understand the ecology and biology of mountain hay meadows, and identify and protect key species and habitats in need of conservation.

INTRODUCTION

Pogány-havas (Pagan Snow Cap) Microregion Association was founded in 1999 by Harghita County Council. Its founding members are the local councils of seven municipalities as well as local NGOs and entrepreneurs. These entities work together to form common goals, expand the local economy and develop tourism. We work on a range of projects to increase local incomes, preserve the region's cultural heritage, and conserve the natural environment. The Association has three main fields of activity: ecotourism; development of the local economy, with special attention to agriculture; and nature conservation.

The Pogány-havas Microregion comprises six village municipalities in the Eastern Carpathians: Păuleni-Ciuc, Mihăileni, Frumoasa, Lunca de Sus, Lunca de Jos and Ghimeş-Făget. Ghimeş-Făget is located within Bacau county while the rest belong to Harghita county. Şumuleu-Ciuc (Csíksomlyó) is part of the microregion too: the sacred centre of Transylvania for Hungarian Catholics. Frumoasa was a major Armenian centre which still retains its architectural and cultural monuments.

A municipality may incorporate a number of small villages and/or settlements. There is a total of 33 villages altogether with 23,000 minority Hungarian residents of which 36% are Székely, while 64% belong to the Gyimes Csángós.

Most of the region’s inhabitants have a semi subsistence farm, or are actively involved in family farming. Cow breeding and milk production gives many families their main monthly income, being the most significant activity in the area, which creates a high nature value landscape and an incredible biodiversity.

This beautiful region of Romania has important lessons to offer the modern world. There is much talk of sustainable agriculture and forestry, local food production and biodiversity protection in Europe, but Europe has failed to meet the Convention for Biological Diversity’s target: to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss.

Yet the villagers of Transylvania have been managing their land and rural economies sustainably for the past thousand years. This region retains outstanding biological diversity in a working agricultural landscape.

The small scale patchwork of hay meadows, pastures and fields is an ideal management system for biodiversity – a system that semi-subsistence farmers have maintained for centuries. Storks, frogs, eagles, insects, newts, corncrakes, wild flowers thrive here in abundance. Local food production and consumption is the norm in most villages. This traditional lifestyle provides essential ecosystem and conservation services to the country, and offers resilience to economic and environmental shocks.

This paper describes the activities of the Pogány-havas Association, especially those relating to ecology, conservation and traditional agriculture.

Table 1: Mission and vision

The mission of the Pogány-havas Association is to improve the quality of life of locals by respecting natural values and traditions. Our vision is that the people in the region receive more income thanks to actions based on local resources and traditions. By informing and educating people and by fellowship actions (kaláka spirit) our community is happy with its situation. We wish to become a model region where people live in harmony with nature and tourists visit us to experience this kind of lifestyle. www.poganyhavas.ro

POGÁNY-HAVAS MICROREGION

Extending from the valley of the Csík (Ciuc) Basin and out to the eastern edge of Transylvania, continuing out into Bacau County in Romanian Moldova, lies the Pogány-havas (Pagan Snow Cap) Region. Few visitors from the West have discovered this very special part of Transylvania, which retains its strong Hungarian culture, language and traditions from the year 1000, although it has been part of Romania since 1920.

This diverse area comprises parts of two distinctly separate regions, Csík and Gyimes (Ghimeş). Csík has a wide, open landscape surrounded by mountains, while Gyimes is a mountain area with deep and narrow valleys. Both are rich in natural treasures: many rare plants and animals, including the southernmost range of several species left here since the last ice age.

The Csík basin is one of the three large tectonic mountain basins of South East Transylvania. It is characterized by bustling agricultural activity with the beautiful backdrop of green mountains. Another characteristic is the naturally carbonated spring water, called "borvíz" (wine-water) locally. The terrain in Gyimes is mountainous and the villages are tucked in narrow valleys. Gyimes also has many natural springs. Each area is uniquely beautiful and offers a wide range of cultural relics, natural marvels and scenic trails.

Separating the two regions is one of the most important passes in the East Carpathian Mountains: the Gyimes Pass. With wonderful panoramic views, it connects the Carpathian Basin and the Transcarpathian Regions. You can reach Pogány-havas, our organization’s namesake mountain, from the pass.

Farming here still uses methods characteristic of another age, on a very small, subsistence scale. The great value of this method of farming is that it creates and preserves habitats for the animals and wild flowers of the alpine grasslands and wet meadows while also maintaining a rich cultural value. The biodiversity of the region is described in detail elsewhere in this volume (Csergő et al., 2011).

The contrasting topography of Csík and Gyimes, as well as historical and cultural differences, offers interesting comparisons (Table 2). In  Csík, pastures and forests are managed on behalf of the village shareholders by communal management organisations (composesorates). Cows are grazed daily on the village pastures in a common herd and milked at home in the morning and evening. Gyimes has some common land, but for the most part smallholders own and manage their own parcels of pasture and forest. The difference has a historic background: the Gyimes area was populated only during and after the 17th century, and the area of the villages (first just places for a house and a barn) was bought from the composesorates of the Csík villages. Here in the summer months, cows are taken to the mountains to graze the high pastures, and they don’t return to the village before autumn. In both regions, hay meadows are owned and managed by individual families, creating a mosaic of habitats mown and manured at different times, an ideal system for fostering diverse plantlife and sustaining meadow wildlife.

Results from our 2010 survey of 60 farmers in two contrasting research areas (Biró, 2011) show a 10% decrease in cows and a 20% decrease in hay meadow in the past ten years. This average figure disguises big local variations: a decrease of 55% in the Csik sample (Delne village) and increase of 13% in Gyimes (Hidegség village), despite lower milk prices in Gyimes. Note that this is small sample and may not represent the picture across the whole region.

Table 2: Comparison between Csík and Gyimes agriculture

  Csík (Ciuc) Basin Gyimes (Ghimes) Valley
Area* 215 km2 232 km22
Arable 20% 2%
Hay meadow 34% 27%
Pasture 22% 33%
Forest 25% 38%
Average farm size 4-5 ha in 5-6 parcels 2-3 ha or less in 4-6 parcels
Farms eligible for SAPS** 80% 55%

Data: National Institute of Statistics  and Harghita County - Agenţia de Plăţi şi Intervenţie pentru Agricultură
*Area within the Pogány-havas microregion
**SAPS = single area payment scheme

MOUNTAIN HAY MEADOWS – HOTSPOTS OF BIODIVERSITY AND TRADITIONAL CULTURE

The meadows of Transylvania are some of the most species-rich grasslands of Europe. Amongst them, the hay meadows found in the hills and mountains of Eastern Transylvania are outstanding in terms of biodiversity, landscape beauty and the living rural communities that created and manage them.

Our project „Mountain hay meadows – hotspots of biodiversity and traditional culture” aims to help and record the sustainable use of hay meadows and thus to maintain high biodiversity, important ecosystem services and healthy local communities in two adjacent but very distinct landscapes of the Eastern Carpathians.

Our land is of exceptional natural value, with many protected areas, but many yet unknown that are not protected. These include different types of meadows still managed using traditional practices.

We emphasize that traditional land use practices are still present and viable in the local communities of our area. It is of utmost importance to document and preserve traditional knowledge on land use management because this knowledge provides high resilience against global challenges such as climate change and economic crises.

Traditional land use practices in our area are threatened by forces of the market economy and economic development. For example, EU regulations put severe restrictions on milk quality, which imperil traditional sources of income for the local population.

We believe that the traditional systems for milk production are of key importance to the local maintenance of agro-ecosystems with a high biodiversity and provide a wide range of ecosystem services, including carbon storage with direct effect on global climate change, and sustainable income generation through ecotourism and ecological products.

Main objectives:

Main activities:

The project runs from September 2009 till February 2011. Achievements to date include an international conference held in June 2010, many of whose speakers have contributed articles to this volume; and the Ecological Society of Germany, Austria and Switzerland (GfOE) Project Award for 2010.
www.mountainhaymeadows.eu

QUALITY MILK PRODUCTION

The disappearance of the market for village-produced milk is a major threat to livestock numbers, small-scale farming, traditional farming communities and biodiverse grasslands that depend on low-intensity agriculture.
To increase the value of the main cash product of local agriculture – milk  – we are helping to create 3 new milk collection points, with 2-4 more planned soon, have supplied equipment to allow monitoring and improvement of milk quality in compliance with new hygiene regulations.
We organize cheese making training for farmers to learn how to make mature cheese, as an alternative to the traditional fresh cheeses. This might help local farmers to market their products in shops and more widely, after the long tradition of selling only at farmers’ markets.
We are in the planning stage of a new social enterprise food company that will develop, process and market mature cheese and other milk products in EU-standard food barns in our region.

OTHER PROJECTS

Our activities comprise an integrated programme to support rural incomes through protecting and describing the natural and cultural treasures of the region.

CONCLUSIONS

Environmentally sustainable traditional agriculture remains alive in this region of Romania, and can teach us a lot about how to manage agricultural systems with high biodiversity. But it requires a range of initiatives to support farming families and rural communities as they struggle to remain economically viable in the face of unhelpful legislation and globalisation.

AKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Harghita County Council, Environment Protection Agency of Harghita County, Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania and Fundaţia ADEPT are professional partners in our projects. László Demeter of Sapientia University is the scientific director of our ecology and conservation projects.

We thank our sponsors: the UNDP Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme, the Szülőföld (Homeland) Fund of the Hungarian Government, the European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism with funding from the European Commission (DG Environment), Harghita County Council, the Barbara Knowles Fund and individual donors.

REFERENCES

Biró R., Demeter L., Knowles B. 2011 - Farming and management of hay meadows in Csík and Gyimes – experiences from sociological research. In: Mountain hay meadows: hotspots of biodiversity and traditional culture, Ed. Barbara Knowles, Society of Biology, London.

Csergő A. M., Demeter L., Molnár Zs., Babai D., Jakab, G., 2011 -  Proposal for the creation of a new Natura 2000 site in the Ciuc Mountains. In: Mountain hay meadows: hotspots of biodiversity and traditional culture, Ed. Barbara Knowles, Society of Biology, London.

Demeter L., Csergő A. M., Sándor A. D., Imecs I., Vizauer C.T. 2011 - Natural treasures of the Csík Basin (Depresiunea Ciucului) and Csík Mountains (Munții Ciucului). In: Mountain hay meadows: hotspots of biodiversity and traditional culture, Ed. Barbara Knowles, Society of Biology, London.